Foodies on the prowl for good restaurants are sure to have heard of Akashi, known to have the longest sushi bar in Singapore with more than 100 dishes prepared with the finest ingredients imported from Japan. The restaurant is part of the Akashi Group that has been bringing authentic robatayaki experiences to Singapore since 2008.
Now, Sam Goh, one of the three founders of The Akashi Group, has proudly passed on the baton to his son Javier Goh, the second generation to take the business to a whole new level.
Javier cut his teeth in the fickle food business at the age of 16 when he started working in a restaurant. He was tasked with washing pots and pans. He recalls: “My dad, one of the three founders of Akashi Group, started me in the business at the lowest rank — washing pots and pans. I enjoyed it even though it was hard work and it was when I was fully exposed to kitchen life and action.”
Javier later worked at White Dog Café, which was under the Akashi Group then, where he helped with peeling potatoes and basic cutting work. He then enrolled himself at Shatec, a professional institution that trains chefs and those who want to learn more about the hospitality industry.
After Shatec, Javier decided to work at other restaurants to gain more knowledge. He shares: “My dad was very supportive of the idea, and looking back, the ‘external working experiences’ have really helped influence and shape how I work in the restaurant business today.”
Fifteen years and countless peeled potatoes and clean pots later, Javier has launched the Japanese bincho grill restaurant Akanoya Robatayaki under the Akashi Group. To work on this new endeavour, he has also built a brand new team with good friends and former colleagues — Brandon Teo as head chef and William Liou as general manager.
With Akanoya Robatayaki, he aims to offer a modern, enhanced robatayaki experience. The new a la carte and omakase menus feature bincho-grilled dishes featuring Japanese seasonal ingredients aged in-house in Akanoya’s ageing fridge, and fermented components such as fermented black garlic or pickled seasonal vegetables.
Javier shares: “With our know-how, networks in Japan and understanding of Japanese traditions and culture in this market, we have acquired enough understanding to demystify them for the non-Japanese customers. With this new experience we have created, we hope to share and cultivate a greater appreciation for this art of robatayaki.”
Javier tells Options how he got to where he is today and his hopes and dreams.
Can you describe your father’s training methods? I understand you washed pots and pans in your early days...
Yes, [my father] believes one should know every aspect of the business, so what better way than to start from the bottom? It’s also a method I fully agree with. Having gone through it, I now understand better what the staff goes through.
Many people think being the second generation means you have it easy. Not at Akashi. It’s the school of hard knocks, as my dad and uncles were hands-on restaurateurs. You have to work harder to prove yourself. I still remember how they would ferry the ingredients in their cars which would then smell of raw fish. That’s how committed they are to ensuring the restaurant always has the freshest and best ingredients, and the best experience for customers.
What are some valuable lessons you learned from your father? What’s the best part about working with your father?
There is no shortcut and we need to look at every single detail. [The founders] have built up a very special dining culture at the Akashi Group. We have a very strong pool of regulars who are very supportive of us because Akashi makes them feel at home and comfortable. Our customers have shared with us again and again — that our hospitality has a special touch, and this is why they come all the time. They bring their kids over the years, and their kids now bring their children... For us, it was just all about doing our best and going the extra mile.
I think the best part of working with my father [and uncles] is having a ready mentor, whom I can go to for advice. There is a lot of value in the experience.
What was it like growing up in the Goh household, with your father and uncles? Were dinner conversations always centred around the business?
Yes, yes and yes. Our personal lives and work are very entwined and my personal interests are very culinary-related too. I love to eat and cook, and am often in the kitchen experimenting.
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Has your father fully retired or is he still very much hands-on?
He is still very hands-on, and you can often find him at Akashi restaurant.
When was the moment that you decided that F&B is what you want to do, knowing that this is probably the toughest industry to be in?
[It was] when I was washing pots and pans and I loved it; when I was cutting vegetables and peeling onions and potatoes and I loved it; when the chefs scolded me and I didn’t mind it... Even today, when I cook, it brings me a certain level of happiness.
How did the restaurant cope during the pandemic? What were some of the lessons you learned?
It was a very dark and stressful period for the entire F&B industry. The most important thing is we need to be flexible and adapt. We learned so many new things and tried so many new things during the pandemic. We came up with delivery concepts, packages etc.
For Akanoya, we relied heavily on the tourist crowd. When travel borders were closed, we suffered initially. However, we started to realise that there are many Singaporeans who are keen to know about traditional Japanese cuisine and concepts but may find the experience alienating sometimes. Being Singaporean-owned and knowing Japanese cuisine very well, we were able to be the bridge — to introduce them to the traditions and cuisines in an approachable way.
There is a misconception that Singaporean-run Japanese restaurants will never be as good as Japanese-run Japanese restaurants. I don’t think that is fully accurate. It can be as good, or it can be different — but it does not mean it is an inferior experience.
Yours is a family business that is Singapore-owned; how are you able to bring a touch of Japanese culture to it?
For the last few decades, Japan has been our second home. And the producers and suppliers in Japan we work with have become like family. So our foundation for Japanese cuisine, culture and traditions is strong.
We also have very strong reference points. This is also why we decided to set up an Akashi office in Japan, so we can source the best, most interesting and most authentic ingredients. For what we do not know, we have Japanese counterparts who can advise us. We fly in our ingredients from Japan three times a week directly, for the freshest seasonal produce.
When the pandemic hit, we also realised consumer behavior have changed. Now, you can get Japanese sake easily online. So our Japan office immediately [looked for] sake brewers who are off the radar. Now at Akanoya, you can discover a myriad of sake brewers that you would not have found online.
It’s the same with ingredients. For example, our Japan team found a village in Japan that’s focused on producing sesame sauce. After we tried it in Singapore, we liked the flavour and quality, which is different from other sources. Now, we buy the entire production [output] from the village, so you can only find this unique taste in our group of restaurants.
What’s new at Akanoya Robatayaki?
When I took over, I knew I couldn’t do it alone. So I [hired] my good friends, whom I worked with at The Library. William Liou is the general manager and handles the operations, service and drinks. Brandon Teo is the head chef, and I’ve always enjoyed working with him on all things culinary.
With our new understanding, we charted a new direction for the new Akanoya Robatayaki.
The traditional choice of choosing your fresh ingredients and getting the chefs to grill them still remains, as we have a strong pool of regulars.
However, we also wanted to offer a newer perspective of robatayaki to an audience who wants to try new things. On top of the traditional menu, we have a new menu where chef Teo introduces “composed dishes” — these mainly comprise ingredients done robatayaki-style, complemented with other ingredients.
We are experimenting with other culinary methods, such as ageing our ingredients in our in-house ageing fridge. Some customers are surprised we aged more than meats — we also aged kinki fish, cow tongue etc, as we are constantly experimenting. Ageing concentrates the flavours and breaks down texture, so this is exciting for us, as it helps us create even more unique dishes. We also do a lot of fermentation in-house, making our own kombucha, pickling and more. We’ve also made our prices more palatable. An omakase 12- course menu that includes premium seasonal ingredients like Japanese wagyu and seafood is priced at $228++. If you compare it to the other Japanese dining experiences out there, you won’t call this crazy pricing.
With the massive renovation completed in January 2022, we have added a bar, two private rooms as well as booth seats, with one robatayaki counter. Previously, the entire restaurant was just robatayaki counters.
What new things will you bring to the business in your new role?
The team is always coming up with new ideas and we always listen to the feedback from our customers.
We are planning a special menu to celebrate National Day, where chef Teo has created an omakase menu with Singaporean dishes using top-quality Japanese ingredients — satay using omigyu, for example.
One thing people may not know about Akanoya is that we are open until 1.30am from Tuesdays to Saturdays. We have the full menu available and have also recently introduced a supperclub menu, available from 10.30pm. We also have highballs from around the world in the supperclub menu.
What advice do you have for someone who is still undecided about joining the family business?
Go out and work first to get all the experience you need.